Union activity inside Wal-Mart is busting out all over in Canada, and the movement could be a prelude of things to come south of the Canadian border. On April 19, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Supreme Court of Canada had refused to hear an appeal by Wal-Mart to block a unionization effort at the retailer’s store in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Wal-Mart tried to argue in the case “Wal-Mart Canada Corp. v. Saskatchewan Labor Relations Board” that the Labor Board should not be allowed to rule on their case because the Board is biased in favor of labor, and against Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has been desperately trying to delay the unionization process. The decision meant that the Saskatchewan Labor Relations Board was free to decide whether Wal-Mart workers at the Weyburn store should be certified, so they can bargain for a labor contract. Weyburn eventually became the third Wal-Mart store in Canada with active union status. “After losing in the high court, you’d think they have run out of stalling tactics,” a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers union told Bloomberg News. In April of 2005, Wal-Mart lost an appeal to the Canadian Supreme Court, when the justices refused to overturn the Labor Board’s demand that the company turn over documents to the union. The workers first applied for union status in April 2004, so the company has successfully run up the union’s legal bills, and blocked the door to unionization. Wal-Mart stores in the Quebec towns of Saint-Hyacinthe and Gatineau are already unionized. Wal-Mart has taken the Gatineau unionization to court, the union said. On October 17, 2008, Sprawl-Busters noted that Wal-Mart was closing down their Tire and Lube center at their store in Gatineau, Quebec, because the workers had won union status. The giant retailer told the Associated Press that five workers and one manager at the center were offered jobs at comparable Wal-Mart facilities or elsewhere in the store. The rest of the store will remain open, and the other 245 workers there will not be affected, the company explained. Wal-Mart elected to close the department after an arbitrator in Quebec approved a union contract for the facility in August of 2008. This closure replicates the actions taken by the company in 2005, when it closed an entire store in Jonquiere — also in Quebec. Wal-Mart did the same thing to meatcutters at a store in Texas. Once the meatcutters organized, Wal-Mart announced that it would no longer cut meat in its stores. The Jonquiere closure was challenged by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, and is still pending before the Canadian Supreme Court. In 2008, Wayne Hanley, the president of UFCW Canada, told the AP, “Wal-Mart thinks a cheap oil change is more important than the Canadian constitution.” But Wal-Mart said the department closure was merely a financial decision. A Wal-Mart Canada spokesman said the union contract was too pricey for the Arkansas retailer. “It could require us to increase consumer prices by more than 30 percent,” the company spokesman said. Wal-Mart insists that it is not anti-union, but pro-associate. “We think the best-case scenario is when the (employee) can deal directly with the company through an open door and … open communication,” the Wal-Mart spokesman said. This week, three months after Wal-Mart shut down the Gatineau tire shop, the Vancouver Sun reports that workers at another Wal-Mart in Gatineau have been granted bargaining rights, and will start negotiating their first contract. But Wal-Mart wasted no time in appealing the certification order to the Quebec Superior Court, trying to force a secret ballot election at the store. It took these workers at the Gatineau store 3 1/2 years to gain bargaining rights. “Hopefully, Wal-Mart won’t squander another chance to prove its critics wrong, and it will take this opportunity to show the world that it believes in human rights by sitting down with these . . . workers to negotiate a contract in good faith,” the president of the Canadian UFCW said. Wal-Mart replied that public polls show Quebec residents believe union representation should be decided by secret ballot. Wal-Mart closed down an entire store at Jonquiere, Quebec in 2005, and the store at Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec is still in arbitration over a contract there. The Weyburn decision has also been appealed. At each twist in the road, Wal-Mart has tried to delay or shut down the union advances.
The Canadian union controversies with Wal-Mart come as attention focuses in the United States on legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize — similar to the Canadian rules. Wal-Mart has aggressively opposed legislation in Congress that would allow labor organizations to unionize workplaces by collecting a majority of card pledges, without secret ballot elections. “Many Wal-Mart customers are union members,” a Wal-Mart official pointed out, “and we respect their work efforts and dedication, but we are opposed to card-check legislation in the United States because of coercion and loss of privacy. The last thing this country needs now … is a bill that would hurt job creation and hurt prices for consumers.” The very first Canadian Wal-Mart store to be unionized was the Jonquiere store. At the time, Wal-Mart stated that closure of the store had nothing to do with unionization. In China, Wal-Mart has been forced to accept the state-run union, but in the U.S. and Canada, the retailer has aggressively worked to bust union activity at the store level through a careful campaign of employee surveillance, a special Union Hotline to alert the company, and anti-union teams to counteract union organizing store by store. Wal-Mart says it is not anti-union, just non-union. It arms its store managers with a manual that helps them profile potential trouble-makers among their workers, or union spies, known as “salts.” The “unaffordable” union contract at the Gatineau store would have raised pay from a minimum of $8.50 to a new minimum of $11.54. One angry Canadian told the Ottawa Citizen, “(Wal-Mart) should go back to their own country if they don’t want to obey Quebec law.” Another Wal-Mart customer added, “How’s a young guy going to pay for his apartment and his car on $8 an hour? Wal-Mart is going to put these people on welfare.” The UFCW is also in the middle of arbitration over a contract at a third Wal-Mart store in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. So far, Wal-Mart has not threatened to shut down that store. Wal-Mart says it has closed 8 Tire and Lube Centers at its Canadian stores over the last two years, because the centers weren’t making enough money. A Wal-Mart spokesman said these closings “had nothing to do with union activity.” According to UFCW head Wayne Hanley, Wal-Mart is sending the clear message that “if you join a union, they’re going to close your shop.” Wal-Mart Canada’s official statement on unions is as follows: “Wal-Mart Canada believes in providing associates with a work environment that is based on respect, dignity and a true partnership in the business. We foster an environment that welcomes the identification of challenges or problems, and a mutual resolution of those challenges. As a company, we value our associates’ right to communicate any and all concerns they have directly to their supervisor, who must work to a fair and proper resolution quickly. Our culture of open communication is important to meeting our associates’ needs. The key to preserving the climate in which we conduct our business is to always uphold the beliefs upon which Wal-Mart was founded. Wal-Mart Canada supports and respects our associates’ right to exercise freedom of association, including the decision to join or not to join a union. Associates have the legal right to make such choices, free from intimidation, coercion or undue influence from anyone.” The footnote they should add would read: “And if you do choose to form a union, we will exercise our freedom to shut down your store.” Wal-Mart Canada currently operates a network of 309 stores across Canada and employs more than 77,000 Canadians. Readers are urged to contact Wal-Mart Canada’s Director for Corporate Affairs, Kevin Groh, at 1-905-821-2111 x 8012, with the following message: “Dear Mr. Groh, Wal-Mart Canada says it wants to provide its workers with a ‘rewarding work environment,’ but when the workers ask for their rewards, the company shuts down their department or store. By shutting down jobs at places like Jonquiere or Gatineau, Wal-Mart is intimidating and coercing workers in their exercise of freedom of association. I urge Wal-Mart Canada to reconsider this policy, and honor your statement about respecting the right of workers to decide to join or not to join a union. Americans are watching your legal maneuvers in Canada, and understand that the battle will soon be engaged in the United States as well. How many stores is Wal-Mart prepared to shut down before recognizing its workers’ right to organize?”